Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Finally, the post you've all been waiting for...safari pictures! Enjoy. I'll try to post captions in the near future.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

New Faces

The rest of the group arrived today. Steve, Natacha, and I went to the airport to pick them up. It was really exciting to finally meet all of the people we have been hearing about for so many months. We also paid for our plane tickets to Ghana and booked the hotel. We all went straight to the hostel after the flight got in and had dinner. It was really nice to meet everyone and they were interested to hear what we had been up to for the past month. The group gets along really well, even though it is just the beginning. I think we all share a passion for what we are working on and that gives us a common ground. We are having fun so far, and I’m looking forward to going to the Mara this weekend. It should give us more time to get to know each other and get everyone caught up on the business model. It seems like everyone comes from different, yet complementary, backgrounds. I also can’t wait to see the animals!

Nairobi's Informal Sector

On Thursday we went to the industrial area (Gikomba) to learn more about informal industry and fabrication. I had been there once before with Clarice, before Steve arrived, but we just drove through so that I could see the kinds of things that they were making. This time, Clarice made friends with some Luos who were fabricating aluminum trunks on the side of the road. We got out of the car and Clarice talked to them for a few minutes, asking some questions about how they made the trunks. They showed us the raw materials, how they used chisels and shears to cut the metal, and how they made the handles and joined the corners. Basically they made the entire trunk out of aluminum sheets, a few rivets, and some metal rods. They used hammers, shears, and a chisel. And they had an I-beam that they used as a surface to hammer on. It was great for bending the metal rods. The hammer that they use has a hollow metal handle. To put the rivets in, they put the rivet under the two sheets of metal they are joining, then hit the hollow end of the handle down hard on top the sheets so that the rivet pokes through. Then they hammer down the now exposed end of the rivet. They are very skilled and able to work quickly. One of the guys made a trunk handle in about 30 seconds. They also showed us how they joined the corners. The top of each side has a lip on it, so they bend a metal rod and put one end in one side of the box and the other in the side they are joining it to. Then they fold over the flat metal part.

Once we made friends with these guys, they agreed to show us around the area and take us to some of the places where they bought materials and they showed us almost everything that was made in the area and how it was made. We saw so many creative ideas. Necessity breeds innovation. They were recycling all kinds of products, especially metal cans, which they turned into kerosene lamps and piggy banks. They made all kinds of bowls and pots. For these, they took a round sheet of metal, held it over a metal ring with their feet, and pounded the middle in with a HUGE sledgehammer to form the bowl shape. It was amazing to see all of the men working simultaneously. There were about 50 of them, so the noise was deafening. But they were all incredibly strong. People were working so hard. And all just to live on about $1 a day.

One of my favorite things was the machine that they had come up with to heat up a fire for blacksmithing. It had a hand crank that you turn which turns a fan that blows air into a very large underground sort of tunnel and that air gets blown onto the coals, causing the fire to heat up very quickly. The machine was man-powered and local made, but very effective. Each time we saw new tools or products, I was just in awe of what they could make out of so little. It’s all about minimizing material use. Some other cool things we saw were a grill with a really cool mechanism for raising and lowering the grate and a hand-powered threshing machine…sound familiar? It was small, transportable, and simply designed.

I was also impressed at how few tools they used. They had some local-built machines for cutting metal and punching holes, but other than that all we saw were hammers, saws, chisels, and shears. There was some welding equipment, but only very basic, there was soldering (of course no soldering irons), and we even saw one power drill. There was also a metallic sort of paste that was used to join metal. When it dried, it was as hard as the aluminum.

I could go on, but I think this was one of most interesting days of the trip so far. It gave me a really good perspective on what’s available and what the design constraints. It was interesting how necessity brings out the creativity in people. At one point I looked at Clarice and said, “What am I doing here? You don’t need me.” There were very smart people there and even better fabricators. I really believe that the people in Kenya could solve their own problems if they had access to the resources to do so. Therein lies the problem. I was completely overwhelmed by what people could create with such limited materials. They could make everything they needed, one way or another. And much of it used recycled materials, either containers brought from factories or old objects turned into new ones. It was an engineer’s paradise basically, full of ideas and innovation and I would love to go back and see more. If only these people had access to jobs. They were more than competent and work so hard for so little while in the U.S. many people sit in offices all day, playing solitaire, and get paid big bucks. Just another experience to remind me how good I have it back home. People in America are lucky.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Return to Nairobi

Steve and I flew back to Nairobi on Wednesday morning. The traffic in the city was so bad that it took about 90 minutes to get to Clarice's house. Once we arrived, Steve showed her the website design, and she really liked it, so he is now finishing up the coding so that we can get it up as soon as possible. Because we worked on Sunday all day, we took the afternoon off and went to see Harry Potter with Alice, which was so much fun. In the movie theater it felt like we were in the U.S. again. I think after 10 days in Kisumu area, I really needed that. Don't get me wrong, I loved being there, but after a few weeks, it can get a little bit exhausting. People constantly staring and everything we needed to do was just difficult because so many things are unreliable. It was nice to be back in the city. Maybe I'm just restless wherever I go because now I'm feeling ready to go back to the rural villages!

I won't be back there for another week, though. There's a bunch of stuff to do in the next three days before the rest of the team arrives, including trying to get our prototypes built, which has proven to be quite a challenge. Tomorrow morning we go to KIRDI's Nairobi office. Hopefully that will work out and we can build on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Wednesday afternoon was stressful logistics-wise. A lot of apartment type places don't accept reservations, and the houses that we were going to rent were given away. So Clarice spent several hours on the phone securing a new place, which we went and saw. It was pretty nice, but also expensive. And they wanted us to go to the bank and pay cash upfront for the whole time we would be staying there. By the time they told us this, it was Friday morning and the banks were going to close at 3, so we weren't going to be able to make that happen. After a lunch meeting on Friday afternoon, we went and checked out another place, which is right in the city center. Luckily, they were able to accomodate us for all of the dates that we needed. Crisis averted.

Thursday morning we met with the country director for UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization). He's in charge of the programs for Kenya and Eritrea. The UN complex has very tight security. They kept our passports as collateral while we were inside. Apparently the U.S. Embassy has even tighter security - 3 gates before you even enter the building. We met with him for almost 2 hours, discussing ACESS's mission and the potential for collaboration. He was a very nice guy, very no-nonsense, and on the same page as Clarice, which was great. Things are looking good for collaboration and potential monetary support. He is launching a new program called Lighting Up Kenya, which uses power as an entry point into communities. He has set up a few centers that provide power, facilities, and support to help people start businesses. He said that he is not interested in giving people money for the businesses, but wants to teach people how to help themselves. He is trying to develop infrastructure that will "hand-hold" new business owners instead of just throwing money at them. His goal is to get $1.20 back on every $1 that he spends, so he invests wisely. He wants to be able to say that he has made a tangible difference. And, as a bonus, he's really interested in agribusiness and agroprocessing. Seems like fate, right? He was very enthusiastic about ACESS's mission and will incorporate our needs into his proposal for where to place the next round of centers. He has also hired us to examine the two centers that are currently operating and is giving us a stipend to do so! He also expressed interest in possibly hiring Clarice as a consultant. Pretty much all good things from the meeting, so we'll see what happens next. Needless to say, Clarice, Steve, and I all walked out of that meeting feeling really charged. It seems like this might finally be the breakthrough we were waiting for.

The past two days have been uneventful. We were supposed to work yesterday, but Alice was sick so Steve and I hung around the hostel, reading and blogging and stuff. Same thing today. Tomorrow, back to work. I have to say, I'm looking forward to it. Also, the rest of the team arrives Thursday night and we go on safari on Friday morning! I'm SO excited.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

I Went to the Equator!

Maseno, Kenya is right on the equator. The official marker is about 0.5 km from the university.

Half in the northern hemisphere and half in the southern hemisphere!

Molasses Plant

This plant had some of the most advanced technology that I've seen so far. They process molasses into alcohol and make baker's yeast. They have lots of computers and even do computerized data collection using LabView-type programs.
Molasses storage

Molasses processing

Unloading a new delivery. Molasses is a by-product of making sugar, so the molasses plant gets their input from local sugar mills.

View from the top

You can see the rest of the plant

Loading dock

All of the pipes are color-coded. OCD?

Waste product. Don't worry, it goes through multiple processes before being released into Lake Victoria. There are several holding ponds before the lake.

Cute sheep grazing on the grounds

ATP - Appropriate Technology Project

Automotive shop
Metal shop

Wood shop

Visit with Laban

High-efficiency stoves that Laban is working with a women's group to make and sell

Demo stove and raw materials - sawdust and anthill dirt. Anthills are huge in Kenya, meaning several feet tall, no joke.

Laban holding a mango tree from his nursery
His farm, a typical rural homestead

The family's water source. Luckily, they purify it with moringa powder before drinking it. Moringa powder is a natural coagulant and causes the bacteria to float to the bottom. Many families drink similar water without purification.

Part of Laban's family - too cute

Moringa tree on a neighboring homestead. The leaves are very nutritious, as are the pods. The seeds, which are inside the pods, can be dried and ground into powder, which can be added to food, used to make tea, or used to purify water. The tree also has antibiotic properties and makes a great animal feed. Not surprisingly, the tree is nicknamed the miracle tree.